Now, as at the time of the Vietnam war, the global primacy of the United States is increasingly being questioned.
Among the reasons are its role in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the continued and rapid rise of new great powers, ongoing domestic social and political decay as well as the protracted and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In addition, the US has been unable to develop a policy toward Iran independent of Israeli veto power – leading to a more dangerous and unstable Middle East.
But the US can learn from some of its experiences from almost 40 years ago when it reached out for closer ties with another country to promote regional security.
While still embroiled in Vietnam, the then American leadership was beginning to sense changed circumstances. In a historic move President Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, the first time a US president had given any open recognition to the People’s Republic.
Supported by Kissinger’s advice, Nixon decided to form an alliance of convenience with China against the USSR, while also accepting the opening up of China to the rest of the world.
Less than ten years earlier, US, Soviet (and Australian) foreign policy-makers and hawks had been calling for “surgical de-nuclearisation” of an isolated China that had seen itself, with good reason, as existentially threatened by both of the nuclear super-powers.
The rapprochement initiated by Nixon and warmly received by China meant that the latter could then be “contained”, in large part through its increasing international economic interdependence. It meant a firm rejection of the failed US policy of China’s enforced isolation.
Nixon’s balance-of-power policy with respect to China in the context of the Soviet Union could thus be viewed as a rational response to a setback to US global primacy aspirations, as a consequence both of the Vietnam debacle and because of America’s relative economic decline.
The US−Iran problem
Fast forward 40 years and American foreign policy hawks are again calling for wars of “regime change” or “surgical de-nuclearization”, this time on Iran on the pretext of the latter’s alleged (but as yet unconsummated) nuclear weapons aspirations.
One such strident voice has recently been that of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, who has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers. As for the Obama Administration, like its GW Bush predecessor, it continually claims that it will “use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon”. There has been talk of “bunker-busters”.
Against these hawkish calls, many other US commentators oppose preventive war on Iran. One such powerful critique has been by Harvard’s Stephen Walt. Taking a slightly different tack, the leading US foreign policy “structural realist” Kenneth Waltz has recently argued that, as in the case of China, Iran’s aspirations toward a nuclear deterrent are perfectly rational and reasonable in terms of its own national security.
This is especially so in the light of very real threats from Israel and the US. He also notes that once China actually acquired its own international nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s it necessarily became a more responsible international citizen.
This does not mean that we need to go all the way with Waltz’s severely parsimonious rationalism. The US could hardly be expected to accept a nuclear Iran as a totally desirable outcome. However, what makes sense is to accept that Iran’s aspirations toward a level of nuclear capability (perhaps not unlike Japan’s) would allow mechanisms of a stabilising mutual deterrence to emerge vis-à-vis both Israel and the Arab Middle East in particular.
A worsened regional arms race need not result.
A first practical step would be to withdraw punitive economic sanctions now in place on Iran. Such harsh measures are more likely to harden Iran’s resolve.
Another step toward such a rational and prudent US strategy would be to decisively take “off the table” the option of “preventive war” on Iran ─ that is, aggressive war. As in the case of the war on Iraq (2003), this option is illegal under the UN Charter, and for good reason.